Yeah yeah, I know, Boracay is one of the islands in The Philippines, ergo, ipso facto, I have technically been to The Philippines.
‘So, what the hell are you waffling about?’ I hear you holler.
Well, for anybody who has been to Boracay, you probably already know. For anybody who hasn’t but is contemplating a trip to The Philippines, you may learn a thing or two in the next few minutes. If you’re wise enough, you’ll profit from it and opt for another island.
Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
The Philippines had been calling to me for a long time. Having beaten my flip-flops around the banana pancake trail for moons aplenty, the urge to venture beyond popular tourist traps growled fierce within.
No longer a travel greenhorn, wanderlust had tugged me off-the-grid in 2014, to the awe-inspiring Myanmar, where my mind was blown by the lack of tourists in such an amazing corner of the world.
Having met some wonderful Filipinos along the old dusty trail, including working with a few in New Zealand, I was enamored by their friendly disposition. Throw in some salivating over amazing photos and blogs and a wild story or two from fellow travellers and that was it, I was sold on the idea; I added The Philippines to the never-ending bucket list.
With the travel bug deeply embedded, it was only a matter of time before I got to check it out. However, like everything else, it joined the queue behind South America.
The dream. The adventure of a lifetime.
Several years had rolled by with Project Latino on the horizon, glimmering like a mirage, ever-moving as time marched on.
Korea was to be my ticket to the big trip. I had gone there to South Korea to try my hand at teaching English. More importantly, I had gone to save money.
As the first semester in my ESL teaching career drew to a close, there was an icy chill to the Korean winter air on the eve of the long-awaited school vacation. Students were restless, keen for the impending stretch of freedom. The teachers even more so, dragging themselves from one end of the week to another. The break couldn’t come soon enough.
The Philippines was right there, just a little hop across the ocean.
Oh why not?! I thought.
Ten days was the prescribed duration. There is a school of thought that this is the perfect length of time for a short vacation.
Some say one week is too short while others argue two weeks is a saga of torturous pleasure and relaxation that no person could possibly endure. At least not without feeling the need to work twice as hard on their return to normality, if only to eradicate the guilt that consumes them for daring to enjoy life.
I’m not sure how it came to be that we sat on that fence but in hindsight, I know that it was a mistake.
Ten days in Boracay is possibly the worst way you could spend a trip to The Philippines.
Beautiful destinations like Coron, Cebu and Palawan were dotted around us and yet each and every one would cost us a full day to travel to.
The one thing the three amigos agreed on was our shared desire for sun, sand and relaxation. Packing up and moving every second day, losing full days on buses and airport terminals was the antithesis.
And so, Boracay it was. For ten whole days.
By my measure, it was probably about seven days too many. Others may say ten.
Why? What was so horrendous?
At this point, I should state for the record, it wasn’t horrendous. It wasn’t terrible. I didn’t hate it. I actually enjoyed the break.
But there was something missing. It took me a while to put my finger on it but I realized it in the end.
The Philippines has such promise as the perfect beach destination. On paper, it was to be the vacation we desired.
White sand beaches, good food, cheap living and fun activities, all under the glow of a hot sun. English is widely-spoken and there would be a sense of adventure more akin to Thailand, a world away from conservative Korea.
It was to be the perfect change of pace from our lives in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Which, incidentally, is a woefully inaccurate moniker for the country when you work at an Elementary school)
In reality, Boracay fell short in almost every category.
Coming from Korea, we made a disastrous choice from the outset by flying to Kalibo via Manila. What we should have done was flown to Caticlan.
That mistake alone left us with a wearisome three-hour bus-plus-boat journey on the back of all our flights. The entire journey from Korea to Boracay took a day.
A full day. I could have traveled home to Ireland quicker.
Ominous grey clouds loomed overhead throughout the day, threatening the inevitable bad weather we had hoped to escape. Before we had reached the hostel, I was secretly wondering would it not have been a better idea to fly to Thailand instead.
Were we going to be drowned like sewer rats all week long?
You’re probably thinking, that’s not Boracay’s fault.
The weather is unpredictable in January and you failed to research the reality of landing in Kalibo. You’d be right. But these early misfortunes set the tone for what followed.
We didn’t get drowned like rats, thankfully. One night we managed to raid a skip for some empty boxes, which made for excellent hobo umbrellas as we stomped through the puddles to reach the bars. Rain was a perpetual threat, lurking overhead, ready to spoil whatever plans we had.
While it was no monsoon or tsunami, the skies opened a few times throughout, dampening the spirits of several nights and the island had an on-off relationship with power. In the day, the perfect beach weather was a mere figment of our imagination.
The snorkelling trip we booked was a chilly affair under grumpy clouds, the main event a disappointment largely derailed by choppy waves and murky waters. Even the kite-surfing that Boracay is well-known for was vetoed as the severe cross-winds and rain made for poor conditions to learn in.
This could have happened to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
And so, stripped of good weather and the great atmosphere which high season’s sunshine does bring, we were left with the shell. The naked truth.
Boracay felt a bit like anywhere. It could have been any beach resort in Asia. Nowhere special.
Nothing was different or spectacular or noteworthy. There was no shining star. There was nothing that made me feel, “Wow, The Philippines is awesome”.
After a few days of the same routine on Boracay, late lie-ins and aimless strolls interspersed with mediocre meals and cheap booze, I found myself scouring the map and Wikitravel for other destinations nearby.
That’s when we actually had an internet connection. It was a distant stranger most days, with the storms doing little for the already shaky coverage on the island.
We pondered the dilemma of being on a island for another week, which we had largely tapped out within a few days, with little more to do than eat and drink in shelter from the disappointing weather.
With the ever-popular pub crawl running every second night and a cliff-jumping trip getting rave reviews, we made the decision to stay rather than wasting time and money island-hopping.
The last thing we wanted to do was to start sacrificing vacation days in airports and buses. It seemed like the smarter decision.
Perhaps the weather would clear up. Maybe we would find some good restaurants. We might discover something fun yet.
The pub crawl was worthwhile although it finished quicker than expected and soon after descended into a messy affair at a random rave on the outskirts of the main town, where hundreds of inebriated revelers writhed within mesh-wire fences in a shady forest into the small hours of the morning.
I’ve enjoyed these affairs in the past but it was somewhat unexpected turn on vacation.
I was starting to realize my expectations of Boracay were wide of the mark. Water was the drink of choice for many of the wide-eyed crowd at this stage and I was happy to call it quits and head for the hills with Brandon. He had enough of the chicken coop and I had little desire to relive dark teenage years in this dodgy remote den.
As the nights passed, we frequented bars along the beachfront and enjoyed the craic between our own group, which often including other teacher friends from Korea. We met some friendly Koreans too as well as a couple of gregarious Canadians who lit up an otherwise standard night.
Near the end of the week, I realized something about the people we had met. Or more to the point, the people we hadn’t met.
Before going to Boracay, I had been of the opinion that Filipinos were among the most beautiful of Asian women.
After a week on Boracay, I was wondering had I just happened to meet a few good looking ones by chance abroad. The island was devoid of them. In fact, regardless of looks or sex, Boracay seemed to be lacking young natives on a rather alarming scale. Had they all decided to leave?
On one evening outside a bar, an attractive young woman approached Mike and me as we smoked on the beach. Striking up a conversation, we picked her brain for inside information.
A minute of banal chit-chat passed between us about the nightlife and potential places to go later that night when the topic of work came up.
Suddenly, her friendly demeanor and sultry looks tweaked suspicion. Glancing at Mike, I looked back to her.
“Are you working now?”
She nodded and smiled.
The penny dropped.
Wishing her good luck, we watched her prowl into the shadows of the next bar. Returning to our group, I looked into the bar to see several similar elegant young Filipina women dancing on top of a table.
They were in the minority. Local needles in a foreign haystack.
The bar was busy, the music pumped, drink splashed around the floor as I made my way to the grotty bathrooms at the back. before pushing my way through the ogling crowds that circled the girls.
Was every young Filipina girl here working night shifts?
In the end, we saw the week out with lazy days, relaxing massages and surprisingly good pizzas between walks around the small, somewhat rundown town center, taking care to avoid broken pavements and close-passing traffic.
While the snorkeling was a disappointment, the slow pace of life on Boracay and prevalence of English speakers became a welcome change from the frustrations of life in rural Korea.
However, the grotty streets and so-so food begin to take its toll and a touch of food poisoning gripped me in a cold sweat. Luckily, it didn’t last long.
At the end of the week, we set off for the cliff jumping in high spirits.
The sun had finally decided to show its face and among some 50 others in a largely Western crowd, we cracked open morning beers as the boat coasted over the waters.
Reaching the bar and purpose-built location nestled in the cliff face, we had the best day of the trip. Leaping from wooden planks to jump and scream as we plunged some 60 foot into the water, we ate good food, drank ice cold beers and lapped up the good weather and party atmosphere.
Taking a rest from the jumping, I looked out to the horizon and surveyed the beautiful setting, the cliff-side bar in the ocean, hidden away from the dilapidated and run-down streets of Boracay central.
This was what we had been looking for. Unfortunately, we didn’t find it until the end.
Making the arduous return journey to Korea, the reality of returning to her winter clutches sank in. The break was a welcome one and I thoroughly enjoyed the company I was with and the mix of chilled-out days and boozy nights.
I made some big decisions on my future while I was there and ultimately, I can say I enjoyed the opportunity to relax and unwind.
However, there was an empty feeling at the end of our time in Boracay.
While there, we heard so many stories of the beauty of Palawan. We heard of the clear waters of Cebu and received countless recommendations of other places we should visit. Other travelers came and went through our hostel dorm. Nobody seemed to stay as long as we did.
One lad commented, “What do you think of Boracay? Shit. isn’t it?” within a day of arriving. He was gone again the next day.
With so many amazing islands on offer, I looked back at Boracay and saw a lot of reasons why I would agree.
Could the whole country be the same? Was it all just underwhelming beaches and dirty waters, sleazy bars and mediocre food, temperamental weather and power cuts?
Was it all loud Westerners and drunk Koreans, rundown streets overrun with tourist traps and commercial ideas devoid of local flavor?
Were the beautiful and friendly Filipino people outside of the country exceptions to the norm?
I knew the answers. This wasn’t all of The Philippines. This was just Boracay.
With the cliff-diving day and the company, there was definitely some diamonds in the dirt. But for me, it was a once in a lifetime experience. Next time I hope to make it to the real Philippines.